Shortly before Christmas, Columbia’s Julia Roman-Duval made the decision she had been wrestling with for weeks: Run in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on Feb. 29 or roll the dice and attempt to make the French national team for the Half Marathon World Championships by running the Paris Half Marathon the day after?
As a dual U.S.-French citizen, it was a unique quandary for the 37-year-old astrophysicist and mother of three who is still comparably new to the world of competitive road racing.
It’s a decision she didn’t make lightly. Having recently set a two-minute PR at the Chicago Marathon in October, Roman-Duval easily met the U.S. Trials qualification standard with her 2:35:41.
“The timing really stunk,” she said. “I was hoping I could do both, but if it weren’t for the timing it would have been possible.”
This wasn’t Roman-Duval’s first shot at the U.S. Trials. In 2016, she ran at the trials in Los Angeles finishing 50th overall with a time of 2:46:47. She nearly didn’t make it into the race, due to her then-pending citizenship change.
“It was a really incredible experience that I would love to repeat,” she said. “You have an entire country behind a few hundred runners that are the best in the U.S. But other than an incredible experience and a very fun week, nothing really tangible would have come out of it because I don’t stand a chance to make the Olympic team in the U.S. The field is too deep and competitive–which is great! I probably could not make the top 20 at this point.”
With this in mind, she had her decision.
“My tangible and achievable goal in Paris is to secure my selection on team France, representing the country where I was born and lived for the first 25 years of my life,” she said. She’s aiming to break 1:14. The world championships are in Gdynia, Poland March 29.
Roman-Duval sees this as an opportunity to take her modest running career at the professional level to the next step.
“If I can make the national selection with France I think this is a different level than just running with an individual club,” she explains.
At the same time, she acknowledges that her decision to qualify for the French National Team isn’t a sure thing.
“I was guaranteed to go to the U.S. Trials, but making the French team is a gamble,” she said. “There are no guarantees, so I’m taking a risk. But, no risk–no reward, and I think running on the national team is a big reward that is worth the risk.”
The French team selection is subjective.
“They look at the top one or two runners and they set the bar right below that and they say ‘you go’ and ‘you go’ and that’s it,” she said. “It’s not very fair or transparent or democratic. I think it tells people, ‘why should they bother’ because they don’t stand a chance. That’s one of the main reasons why I think the sport is really struggling in France. It’s one of the great things in the U.S. I think having the Olympic Trials is a wonderful thing!”
In fact, Roman-Duval is quite fond of weighing risks and problem solving, having a strong interest in both math and science at an early age.
“Problem solving was in general something I was attracted to,” she said. “If there was a problem to solve, I couldn’t help it, I had to solve it.”
That serves her well, professionally. Roman-Duval boasts a PhD in Astrophysics from Boston University and spends her days as a scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore where she works to understand the processes that influence the formation of stars and the evolution of galaxies.
She thinks that the competitive running community in France has noticed her, and showing her face in France will help raise her profile in her native country. Not bad for a woman who came to running only a few short years ago.
In fact, Roman-Duval didn’t begin running competitively until well after she had her third child in 2012.
Born in France, she moved at 10 and grew up with her parents and three siblings on Reunion Island, a French territory off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean more than 5,700 miles away from mainland France.
“I tried many sports growing up. I did a bit of soccer, I did karate and got my brown belt. I did climbing and I even tried ballet for two years because my mom was a ballet teacher, but I did not like it. Swimming was the thing that really stayed with me from the beginning and I did swim competitively for a year or two when I was 10 or 11 and then continued to swim every day after stopping competition. I just did it for pleasure. I really liked swimming.”
Roman-Duval returned to France at 17, but admits to having a hard time readjusting. “I think all of us were a little lost and so there was a year hiatus where I really didn’t know what to do with myself,” she said. “I played handball with the PE class, but other than that, I didn’t do much.
“In France, we don’t have varsity sports so there’s no real spirit of competition like there is here in the U.S., so that’s something I didn’t know.”
It was only after moving to the U.S. to attend graduate school at the age of 24 that her affinity toward endurance sports became apparent and she began to compete.
“At that time, I was mostly biking and swimming. I wasn’t running much. I did one or two 10K’s easy a week and I didn’t have much structure to my training, but I was pretty fit from biking and swimming and I was doing that about 2 to 3 hours per day in grad school,” she said.
“I joined a triathlon team and got hooked on endurance sports. I became pretty competitive really quickly and without much training my times just dropped. Within a couple of years I went from racing my first half Ironman to ranking in the top ten at the Half Ironman distance and qualifying for the Half Ironman World Championships. So I realized then, that I had a lot of potential in endurance sports and I really liked them.”
“I’ve always liked to challenge myself. I’m an inherently competitive person and I don’t think I had found a good way to do that until I started doing endurance sports.”
Roman-Duval competed in the triathlon for a little more than two years before she and her husband, Miguel, had the first of their three kids in 2009.
“There were three years when I was pregnant a lot,” she said. “But I still managed to exercise quite a bit. In fact, even on the days my kids were born I would do swimming or indoor cycling. During the first half of my pregnancy, I would run about six miles per week just to get some air, clear my mind and get some stress relief.”
After having her kids she continued to swim and cycle indoors and tried to get back into triathlons but was “bored out of my mind” and didn’t have anybody to train with.
It was about this time that another triathlete at the pool suggested she try to meet and run with “Bobby’s Group” — a training group from the Howard County Striders who regularly meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays for track and threshold workouts. She said they were friendly and supportive and to give them a try.
“So the week after, I showed up and ran for the first time. We did a track workout and I was only running one 10K a week at this point. I think we were doing mile repeats or a ladder workout and I was probably averaging 5:30 or 5:40 pace for all of those. They were like, ‘OK, we need to do something with you.’
The Striders’ racing team captain invited her to join.
“I quickly realized that I loved running more than anything else,” she said. “This group could basically help me build a career in running because they were so supportive and had all this energy. That’s where I made all of my friends that I know in Maryland today. Over time they planted the seed in my head that maybe in 18 months you can try for the U.S. Trials in 2016. That was a complete life changer for me!”
With more consistent training came more mileage, reaching 40 miles from a start at roughly 10 miles per week. By the end of the year, she was averaging 60 miles and took her marathon time to 2:48.
Today, Roman-Duval runs about 85 miles per week. Two other Striders women who have broken 2:45 in the marathon, in Caroline Bauer and Hannah Cocchiaro, help keep her company over long workouts.
“I now realize that volume is kind of key,” she said. “My coach has told me that if you want to get to the next step you have to increase your mileage. I think the increase will lead to more PRs once I get used to the work. A two minute PR in Chicago was a good first step. I’m hoping I can get down to 2:33:00 in the next year or two.”
She’s planning to run the Berlin Marathon this fall.
Of course, behind every successful runner is a successful support system that makes it all possible. Roman-Duval credits her earth scientist husband, Miguel, and their three kids for helping with her success. Even her kids are enjoying a little new-found fame as a result of her running success. When Roman-Duval won the Baltimore Marathon in 2018, race officials let her kids hold the finish tape as she crossed the line. As a result they ended up being in the picture in the Baltimore Sun and several TV broadcasts.
“It was very exciting for them! I think they realized that anything is possible if you put the work into it.”
“My husband has always been supportive and I do try to minimize the impact of my crazy schedule by running early in the morning,” she said. “I come back from my runs and he is nice enough that he gets the kids ready for breakfast, but then it’s full speed ahead to get them ready for the day. Any time I have a race, my husband is always saying, ‘Go, Go, Go! Be Successful! We are all with you!’ We share the workload really well. Obviously, with two careers in science and three kids, it’s pretty heavy. We are a pretty good team.”
Getting enough sleep is the biggest challenge for Roman-Duval. “I get six-and-a-half, maybe seven hours each night and it’s not enough. I’m lucky to have kids who sleep very well. On Saturday afternoon — especially after the long runs, I let them watch a movie and for two hours they are really quiet and I get my nap. To be honest, I don’t think I could survive without it!
In October 1994, on a chilly, rainy day, I toed the line for my first marathon after five months of haphazard training. I had three goals: finish the Marine Corps Marathon in less than four hours, not walk a single step, and beat Oprah!
The world learned days before that the queen of day-time television, Oprah Winfrey, was also attempting her first go at the distance. Surely if Oprah could run a marathon, then so could I!
In November of 2010–fewer than four months after he conquered the legendary Western States 100 mile endurance run in under 27 hours, and about a month after being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer–Mike Broderick passed away peacefully just days shy of his 54th birthday.
Those closest to Mike, knew him as an avid ultra-runner with a sharp wit, a big smile and an abundance of enthusiasm for all things running. For the rest of the running community, he was best known as a coach, a mentor and a teacher. He was a bit of an evangelist, preaching his love of running to everyone who made his acquaintance. Mike, to his running disciples, was well known for his ability to respond in deep scientific detail to very simple yes or no questions.
That legacy has kept a popular training group in his honor – Broderick to Boston, going eight years after his passing.
For McDonogh sophomore Dalton Hengst, the hay was in the barn. He had a great week of practice, a healthy taper and all that was left was about fifteen minutes of hard work plowing through the fields in his racing shoes.
[button-red url=”http://www.mocorunning.com/meet.php?meet_id=3296″ target=”_self” position=”left”] Results [/button-red]A controlled pace combined with a final surge over the last quarter mile paid off for Hengst as he crossed the line in 15:49 to beat out Good Counsel senior and defending champion Jack Wavering by two seconds (15:51) and claim his first Maryland-D.C. Private Schools Cross Country Championship.
Cool temperatures and clear skies made for fast conditions. Only the rolling hills and gusty winds threatened to slow the field of runners as they traversed the Agricultural Farm Park in rural Derwood,Md.
“I had never raced [Wavering] before. It kind of scared me,” Hengst said. “But, this last week I really nailed my workouts. I ran a ladder workout and finished an 800 on the way down in 2:09, so I was feeling great. My coach was yelling at me at the top of the hill, ‘You closed with a 2:09! You can do it! Your kick is better!’ That workout really got me confident. I really tapered for this one and it paid off. I was going for it. I am so happy!”
The two appeared set for a mid-season matchup at the Georgetown Prep Classic in October, and Hengst was salivating for the opportunity to race him, but Good Counsel did not make the trip.
Hengst got off to a fast start, well ahead of the pack before settling down and allowing Wavering and Georgetown Day’s Tristan Colaizzi (third in 16:10) to dictate the pace.
“I let Wavering lead the whole way which was a great strategy for me, but probably hurt him a lot on a windy, windy day,” Hengst said.
“I knew [Hengst] was fast,” Wavering said. “The pace was really honest which usually benefits me a lot. I tried to break him on some of the hills by throwing in surges but he hung on for dear life and pulled it out in the last two hundred meters. My legs were burning up. The race went about as well as I could have hoped.”
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For McDonogh coach Jeff Sanborn, there was little surprise that Hengst would deliver.
“We were expecting him to do well. When this kid arrived [at McDonogh], we knew we had a good one. The kid is a tough racer — a beast. He’s just built for cross country. He’ll do anything you ask him to do. He’s got heart and he runs possessed,” Sanborn said.
“When we came here today, we knew Jack Wavering was the guy to beat and it panned out to be the perfect race. Dalton was going to go with anyone who was going. If you’re going to beat him you’ve got to go hard and go early. He doesn’t hold anything back.”
On the girls’ side, there were few surprises as the one-two spots were reclaimed for a second consecutive year. Sidwell Friends senior Taylor Knibb, won the varsity large school race in an impressive 18:25, followed by National Cathedral sophomore Page Lester (18:53).
The only real drama was who would take third. Good Counsel sophomore Claudia Wendt claimed that spot (19:22) despite sitting out the last six weeks due to injury.
“This race is just not very comfortable in any aspect,” Knibb said. “I noticed the wind a little bit, but that’s just part of cross country. It helped that we raced here two weeks ago (for the Independent School League championship) so I had a bit of a refresher of the course.”
In the end, only three points separated first and second place as Georgetown Day (44) beat Good Counsel (47) for top honors in the varsity girls’ large school division. Georgetown Day scorers finished 4, 5, 9, 12 and 14. Good Counsel runners came in 3, 6, 10, 13 and 15 to take second by a narrow margin. Sidwell Friends captured third place with 82 points.
In the boys’ varsity large school competition, Wavering’s Our Lady of Good Counsel team took home the top prize handily besting second place Gonzaga 26-69. All five of Good Counsel’s scorers finished in the top ten (2, 4, 5, 6, 9). Sidwell Friends took third (93) overall.
“It’s nice to win, but I’m especially excited about how our guys have continued to make progress over the last five weeks. Our 2, 3 and 4 guys have really closed the gap behind Jack [Wavering] and if we can continue to close that gap, we’re legitimately a really good team as we head into Nike [Southeast Regional cross country championships],” said Good Counsel coach Tom Arnold.
In the varsity girls’ small school event, freshman Julia Luljak from the Park School finished with top honors in 20:33. Joy Reeves from St. Andrew’s Episcopal was second (21:08) and Julia Schaefer from Annapolis Area Christian came in third (21:17).
Team honors went to St. Andrews’s Episcopal (50 points) followed by St. Maria Goretti (67) in second and Rockbridge Academy in third (76).
When Wootton’s Grace Dellapa finished the Maryland 4A West Regional Cross Country Championships, she was elated to have run a personal record 18:51 for sixth overall.
Dellapa knew she’d be representing Wootton once again at the state championships a week later. What she didn’t know was whether she’d be competing alone or with her team. All she could do was wait.
For eight straight years the Wootton girls’ cross country team had qualified for the state finals.
“That’s a long run and the girls knew it,” said head coach Kellie Redmond. “They didn’t want to be the first group that didn’t qualify as a team.”
Adversity was cruel to Wootton this year. Redmond acknowledged that it’s something that every school has to deal with but it seemed to hit her team particularly hard.
“We ran into a string of back luck,” she said. “One girl was anemic, another girl was out for a portion of the season with a possible stress fracture and another girl did have a stress fracture. It was just one thing after another.”
Though a team of inexperienced runners fought gamely, they found themselves on the outside looking in, missing the state meet by just five points.
Dellapa, then a junior, felt particularly sympathetic toward fellow teammate and senior Kylie Yassin, who was coming back from an injury and missed individual qualification by just a half second, finishing 24th overall.
What happened next is what made the disappointment of not qualifying as a team so special. Redmond held a team meeting with the girls and explained that while the team didn’t qualify for the state meet they could all continue to support their lone teammate who did. She emphasized that while it wasn’t mandatory, they would still be holding practice every day and that the entire team was welcome to continue to practice. She didn’t expect many to oblige.
“I thought that maybe they would offer to alternate days and maybe a handful would come to practice. Come Monday, all of them–and I mean the whole team–was there for practice,” Redmond said. “These are all young girls, many who had never experienced a state meet, yet they saw Grace get progressively better throughout the season and they knew what she had accomplished throughout the year. They just didn’t want the season to end.”
The team continued to come to practice each day to help Dellapa prepare for the state meet.
“One day we had a relay and they would stand at different stations along the course and I would run with someone and then they would hand me off to another teammate,” Dellapa said. “They wanted to come out and run with me. I was so proud of them.”
She never ran alone.
Heading to the state meet without a full team of girls was strange for Redmond. She reserved a bus for the one-way trip for Dellapa and the boys’ team, who had also qualified, knowing that parents would be there to take home the runners after the meet.
“We were required to have 11 kids on that bus — the boys’ team and Grace,” Redmond said. “Of course, the whole team came. The bus was full. It holds fifty kids. Needless to say, we were scrambling to get rides home for all of the kids after the meet.”
Looking back, Redmond is intensely proud of the way her girls team carried themselves those last few weeks.
“I’m so impressed,” she said. “For as young as they are, they all saw the importance of the state meet and the importance of being there to help their teammate. They all had the attitude, ‘OK, we didn’t make it as a team, but one of us did and this is what we do.’ So the fact that they participated in that and were there supporting her, I think that’s invaluable.”
Redmond explained that she knew race day was going to be emotionally hard for Dellapa. I think they all stood there wanting so badly to be on that starting line with her.
“Here she was standing alone at the start without any of her teammates,” she said. “She had been to the state meet with her team for the two years prior. It was kind of quiet on the line and way off into the distance you could hear a couple of the kids yell, ‘You got this, Grace! Go, Grace!’ It was that moment. I was standing right behind her and I said, “Do you hear that, Grace? They are right here with you. And she just shook her head, like, ‘I’m so fortunate.'”
“Being the only girl representing Wootton was kind of scary, but it was a good feeling. I wanted to represent Wootton well and get out there and do my best,” Dellapa said.
Dellapa didn’t disappoint. She crossed the line at the notoriously challenging Hereford High School course in 19:11, good for fifth place overall.
Asked about her goal for next year and whether she has a good chance to improve upon that fifth place finish, Dellapa said, “We’ll have to see. I can’t guarantee anything, but I’ll try my best.”
Redmond said this of Dellapa: “She just kind of works away and gets better every year. What sets her apart from any other girl I have ever coached is if you tell her to get fifth in the state, she will get fifth in the state! If you say to her mid-race, you need to catch three girls; she will catch the three girls. She is so coachable, it’s amazing! Everything you tell her, she does!”
Redmond says her only regret for the season is that she didn’t ask Dellapa to get first at states. The coach says she won’t make that mistake next season.
For Georgetown Day School’s Tristan Colaizzi, it wasn’t quite the day he envisioned when he toed the line for the Maryland-DC Private Schools Cross Country Championships at the Agricultural History Farm Park in Derwood.
Battling a chronic lung infection for the past few months, Colazzi knew early that he wasn’t going to be the one to challenge Good Counsel junior Jack Wavering for the top spot on this decisive race day. That’s when he tapped teammate senior Aidan Pillard less than a mile into the race and told him he’d have to be the man.
“Tristan had an asthma attack shortly into the first mile. He is our strongest runner. [Wavering] was moving off and Tristan said, ‘I’m hurting and I can’t do it this time,’ so I went with him and Zeke [Cohen] came with me,” explained Pillard.
[button-red url=”http://www.mcrrc.org/md-dc-private-schools-cross-country-championships” target=”_self” position=”left”] Results [/button-red]The pack of runners hung together until the last 1200 meters. That’s when Wavering gave one final surge up the penultimate hill. “Coming up the really steep hill, I began to pull away a bit,” said Wavering. “The hills helped me out a lot.” Enough that Wavering was able to win the race in 16:14 besting Georgetown Day’s Pillard by just one second. Colaizzi ran a gutsy race and finished in third (16:30) edging out Good Counsel’s Kevin McGivern (16:30) in a near photo-finish and Zeke Cohen (16:31) before collapsing just across the line.
Thirty-three schools in all competed for state honors on this cool, calm and cloud filled day. Conditions were ideal for fast races and the runners did not disappoint.
[button-red url=”https://www.dropbox.com/sh/7mmxgelwxqej4a6/AADheNDVMXf03fK_QHcqtRSRa?dl=0″ target=”_self” position=”left”] Photos by Dan DiFonzo[/button-red]The going wasn’t so easy for Wavering early in the contest. “I was pretty worried at the beginning. I was behind the lead guys by 20 or 30 yards the first three quarters of a mile.” Wavering managed to catch the front runners near the one mile mark and hold that lead to the finish.
Georgetown Day’s Aidan Pillard said, “During our MAC championships I caught a guy in the last 200 meters and so I thought I was going to be able to do it again. I made up a lot of ground [on Wavering] but I couldn’t catch him. I think I let him cover a bit too much ground.”
For Good Counsel coach Tom Arnold, there’s a feeling of both pride and satisfaction for his number one runner.
“I’m really happy for Jack Wavering. One of the nicest and hardest working kids I’ve coached; straight A student, respectful. It’s really nice for him to win that. I really love that kid,” Arnold boasted.
[button-red url=”https://www.mediafire.com/folder/issya4kbudae3/DC_MD_STATES_2014″ target=”_self” position=”left”] Photos by Roger Colaizzi[/button-red]All season long the Georgetown Day trio of Colaizzi, Pillard and Cohen have worked together to lead their squad each doing what is needed to ensure success. Georgetown Day School head coach, Anthony Belber explained it best, “The seniors set the tone. Aidan saw that the number one guy was struggling and when someone goes down, someone steps in. That’s part of that ‘team’ mentality.”
Good Counsel and Georgetown Day finished one-two in the large school team competition. In the end, it was Good Counsel’s depth that allowed them to take home the top prize, besting Georgetown Day by seven points. Four of Good Counsel’s runners finished in the top ten (1, 4, 6, 8, 13). Gonzaga finished third.
On the girls side, it was a much happier day for Georgetown Day School in the large team category They bested Georgetown Visitation and Good Counsel to take home top honors.
Individually, Sidwell Friends’ Taylor Knibb finished first in 18:25, National Cathedral’s Page Lester finished second in 18:34 followed by Bryn Mawr’s Sophie Gitlin in 18:40. Knibb won the D.C. state championship the week before.
“It was a great team effort,” Belber said. “It’s the first time we’ve ever beat Georgetown Visitation at full strength.”
“Visitation has set the standard in the region for years with the girls program and they are just so consistent and deep. They win varsity races, they win JV races, they win private school races. They compete against public schools in the big invitationals. So we’ve always aspired to get to that level. Two or three years ago we didn’t even compete with them in the top three or four teams in the league. Now we’re state champions and it feels pretty good,” said a proud Belber.
In fact, Belber and his squad have a lot to be proud of. Katherine Treanor–third overall–ran a school record 19:27. A’Ishah Bakayoko — a converted soccer player–is a junior and in her first year running. She clocked a personal best 19:53. It was her first sub 20 minute performance.
“They are thrilled and I am thrilled,” exclaimed Belber.
Georgetown Visitation head coach, Kevin Hughes, was gracious in defeat, “Expectations are always to win, but Georgetown Day School has been on our heels every step of the way this season and today was their day. Their runners performed at an extremely high level and they came through and won a team championship.”
The Good Counsel girls didn’t fare as well.
“The girls performed poorly relative to what we had hoped for,” Arnold said . “By the thinnest of margins we might have been a contender, but there were just a bunch of teams that stomped us today.” It’s worth noting that Good Counsel carries a varsity squad of just six runners.
It was a great day for freshmen, however. Four of the top ten finishers were freshman. In addition to Lester and Gitlin, Good Counsel’s Claudia Wendt finished in sixth place (19:49). And, Genevieve Dibari of the Stone Ridge School of Sacred Heart finished ninth in 20:00.
For Wendt, there’s a learning curve to climb. “If I had to do it over, I would have gone out a little faster and tried to stay with the leaders,” she said.
For Bryn Mawr’s, Gitlin, it was a good day despite a little scare during the race.
“Toward the end my vision got a little blurry. When I finished, I couldn’t see anything. It was definitely a little scary. I was in second place for most of the race so I was bummed that right at the end [Lester] passed me in the last 100 yards. Racing is so unpredictable. Overall it went well.”
In the varsity girls small school event, junior Sami King from the Field School took first place in 19:18, followed by sophomore Julia Schaefer from Annapolis Area Christian (20:28) and senior Caitlin Flanagan from Rockbridge Academy (21:08).
St. Andrew’s Episcopal won the girls small school team competition. Second and third place awards were decided in a tie-breaker with St. Maria Goretti edging Rockbridge Academy.
The varsity boys small school race was won by senior Harry Wandersman of the Charles E Smith Jewish Day school in 17:23. Second place went to senior Alex Buchholz of Rockbridge Academy (17:30) and third place went to Jonah Smith of The Heights (17:31).
Team honors went to the Field School, followed by The Heights in second place and Bishop Walsh coming in third.
When he last set foot on a track, all was right in Jim Vollmer‘s world. He was at the Maryland state track and field championships over Memorial Day weekend, working as a race official and silently cheering on his Poolesville High School runners, whom he coached in cross country.
He left the meet with genuine excitement and a feeling of satisfaction for the achievement of his runners on this sunny spring day. Senior Chase Weaverling capped a sensational senior year by winning the state title in the boys’ 3200 meter race. And the girls’ and boys’ 4×800 meter squads ran spirited efforts to finish third and fourth, respectively.
“He was so proud of all of his runners that day,” said senior Matt Psaltakis. “He took a lot of pride in knowing that we were there.”
Vollmer passed away suddenly at home May 26, setting off a shock wave of emotions for everyone in the Poolesville running community. He left behind a loving wife, Sandy, and two daughters. He was 60.
He had been building the cross country program at Poolesville for more than two decades. Over the last 24 years he had worked with hundreds of students and coaches — many of whom had kept in touch with him throughout the years. This was apparent at his funeral service, when scores of runners from the past and present came to pay their last respects to their charismatic coach.
For Presad Gerard, it was a beneficial partnership. Gerard, a chemistry teacher at Poolesville, reached out to Vollmer six years ago about joining the team as an assistant. At that time, Poolesville already had an assistant coach, but Gerard convinced Vollmer that he’d be an asset and joined the team as a volunteer coach.
“The [existing] assistant coach left after that season and I was elevated into the position of assistant,” Gerard said. “Over time, my role shifted from assistant to more of an equal. Jim and I have been co-coaches ever since.”
Vollmer and Gerard’s team-coaching approach has been successful despite two clearly different training philosophies. Vollmer, a former collegiate 400 meter specialist and track athlete has been characterized as the motivational coach. Gerard, an experienced ultra-marathoner and distance runner, is described as the more cerebral, strategic planner of the two.
“Because Coach Vollmer knew how to race, and due to his history with the program, he was the primary motivator,” said Poolesville senior co-captain Denise Larson. “Coach Gerard knew a little more about how to train young runners and–while he’s also a great motivator — his strength is in prescribing a pace-based scientific training plan. He’s more of a logistics and numbers guy than Coach Vollmer, who was all about getting the most from runners by motivating them to work their hardest.”
Each fall, on the first day of cross country season, Vollmer gave an impassioned speech during which he would point toward the Poolesville water tower that looms large over the school’s track, calling every day at practice “another step up that tower” and “at the top of the water tower is a state championship.” He explained how the goal for each and every runner should be to get to the top of that water tower.
“When I was a freshman, I thought we actually got to climb to the top of the water tower,” Larson confessed. “I was so excited to do that, and this past fall we came so close to making it to the top, coming in second in the states. Anyone who has ever run cross country for coach Vollmer will tell you that the goal each year is to get to the top of that water tower.”
One of the challenges for any cross country program is finding and recruiting runners. In many schools, some of the best runners are lost to conflicting sports like soccer and football. At Poolesville, the exact opposite has occurred. It’s not unusual to find a handful of skilled soccer players making the shift to cross country. Perhaps this is because Poolesville cross country has a reputation for being tight-knit and inclusive. In fact, if you ask any Poolesville runner what makes cross country so special they will all tell you the same thing, “We’re like a family.”
“Coach Vollmer came to my last cross country meet in middle school when I was in eighth grade to talk about Poolesville cross country,” Larson said. “He must have mentioned the idea of ‘family’ at least a half dozen times. He preached the family message and that ‘family’ was the glue. That’s how this team was built. When I think of family, I think of Vollmer.”
Vollmer had a way to make the simple, special. Larson recalled one of his special traditions:
“It was that same day, Coach Vollmer was the official starter for my final middle school cross country race. He fired the starting gun and we took off. I won the race and afterward Coach Vollmer gave me the spent shell from the starting gun. I still have it. It meant so much to me and all of the kids who received this memento from Coach Vollmer. He loved it and this was his way of supporting the future of Poolesville cross country. I knew that day I wanted to run cross country in high school.”
Word of mouth has helped grow Poolesville cross country. Larson said that as a ninth-grader she was the only freshman girl on the team. The entire team was 14 people. By talking it up and letting people know about the tight family bond that the team had, they were able to grow the team to 40 members for her sophomore year. Last year, the numbers swelled to near 70 runners–the largest team yet.
For Gerard, that sense of family has a lot to do with Vollmer’s style. Described by those who knew him as goofy, fun-loving and slightly eccentric, these qualities allowed Vollmer to connect with the kids and get the most out of them.
Larson fondly recalls Vollmer driving his gold pick-up truck alongside runners as they trained — bluegrass music blaring from the windows, a jug of water in the back for the thirsty.
“He would be talking in your ear, encouraging you, even yelling at you while you ran,” she said. “He knew how to push you, but he also knew how to have fun with it, too.”
So where does Poolesville cross country go from here? Gerard acknowledges that there will be a void moving forward, but is confident they will thrive because of the cohesiveness of the team.
“We’ve hired a new assistant coach who has worked with Jim in the past,” Gerard said. “She has a very positive energy that will be good for the team. The students have created their own support group, working together and encouraging each other to progress whether it’s in school or from one race to another.”
For Larson, she believes that it’s up to her and her teammates to help create a lasting legacy by perpetuating Vollmer’s ideals and commitment to hard work and family. “That’s what Coach Vollmer was to Poolesville cross country, and there’s no way we want that to end.” In the fall, they will dedicate their season to Coach Vollmer and, with any luck, take that last step to the top of the Poolesville water tower as state champions.
Dan DiFonzo is a public relations professional who has been writing for RunWashington, usually about his native Montgomery County, since 2014. That includes a tribute to friend and fellow coach Mike Broderick, published earlier this year. Read more of his work here
Name: Dan DiFonzo
Self-described age group: 55-60
Residence: Rockville, Md.
Occupation: Public Relations Professional
Volunteer roles in the running world: (as applies) Pacer for the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler, Coach for MCRRC’s Experienced Marathoners Program (XMP), MCRRC Race Announcer, various MCRRC volunteer roles
Why you run: The endorphin high, camaraderie, and achieving short and long term goals. .
When did you get started running: I’ve been running since elementary school.
Have you taken a break from running: Not often. Usually forced breaks due to the occasional injury.
Training shoe: Asics Nimbus
Coach or training group: XMP
The hardest race you’ve ever run: Hmmmmm….probably my first marathon. The Marine Corps Marathon in 1994.
Most adventurous decision you’ve made with your running: Continuing to run the JFK 50 miler after losing vision about mid-way through the race.
Running mentors: All of the fellow coaches who I currently run with.
My favorite place to run in the D.C. area is: Rock Creek Park
Favorite local trail: Rock Creek Trail
My best race was: Steamtown Marathon
Favorite local race: Parks Half Marathon
Ideal post-run meal: Chocolate Milk
Favorite flavor of gel, gu, etc: GU Espresso Love–2X Caffeine!
Pet peeve: Spelling errors
Goals: To continue running pain-free
Your advice for a new runner: Just run easy
Favorite running book: The New Competitive Runners Handbook
Song in your head during a run: Don’t Fear the Reaper
Have you dealt with a major injury: Thankfully, no. Just a few bouts of plantar fasciitis and some nagging meniscus fragments floating in my knee.
Running quote: Enjoy Every Step
Why is the D.C. area a great place to be a runner: Great trails, great sights and great people.